Have you ever recovered from a fourteen-hour time change? It’s awful. Really – for almost a week, I was stuck falling asleep at 5 a.m. and waking up at one. But for three more weeks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I’d hop back on a plane tomorrow.
That’s right – I just got back from Kazakhstan! I admit I had to Google a world map the first time I read about this Problems Without Passports program. Now, though, I can tell you that it’s a nation the size of Western Europe, bordered by Russia, China and the Caspian Sea. Its Soviet history is still incredibly visible: plenty of buildings in Almaty, the old capital city, are Soviet apartments, and the university hosting us was actually the old Soviet Party School.
I can talk for hours about the people, culture, food and politics (and have, several times), but since I was there for research, I’d better switch gears. I spent my free time during Spring semester reading about the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear weapons movement. Founded by a national poet in protest of nuclear testing, which the Soviet Union had conducted in Kazakhstan since 1949, this movement stopped Soviet testing altogether in 1989 and created a foundation for the republic’s independence movement. In Almaty, I met with a scientist born near Semipalatinsk (the test site) who now studies the area’s ecology, and also with a woman who served on the 1989 health commission that ruled the site uninhabitable. I was the first person ever to record the testimony of these women for historical record. Not even my professor, the incredible Dr. Rorlich, a world-renowned historian who translated my interviews – me. Wow!
The view overlooking Almaty – there are two million people here!
One of the other issues I heard people describe in Almaty, though, was its pollution. The city developed insanely fast under both Soviet industrialization and independent urbanization, and from the mountains at its edge you can see a layer of smog a lot like L.A.’s. So I started calling all the environmentalists I could find. There were only a few – NGO activity in Kazakhstan is very, very limited – two of whom I talked to when we got back to Los Angeles. I also found a newscast from 2006 in which a sizeable group of people questioned whether Kazakhstan should have gotten rid of its weapons at all. And after investing so much time in Nevada-Semipalatinsk, I was palpably sad. I ranted to my roommate for at least an hour that night about environmental politics, and finally, she reminded me that I had a paper to write.
As I synthesized all these interviews, newspaper articles and expert opinions, I realized that this is what studying history is for. It’s recognizing that the way we remember things defines the way we think. The way people in Kazakhstan talk about political activism becomes the way they practice it, and that affects the way we perceive it, too.
And I see why historians do what they do! I see why we keep writing new books about Abraham Lincoln, why we spend so many hours in archives, and why we insist on visiting the places we write about – it’s because we want to get it right. I want to do justice to this chills-down-my-spine-awesome social movement, because I fell in love with the city where it started and the people who live there now. I want people to know about it, because Kazakhstan is full of phenomenal history that Borat definitely left out.
If this is research, then my goodness, I’m sold. My voice recorder is still in my purse! So when’s the next flight?